*** (out of four)
Many thrillers contain eerie, mysterious figures and a villain waiting for just the right time to strike. Not many thrillers grant attention to the unnerving crackle of an eggshell or, gulp, a young girl’s orgasmic fantasy about doing a piano duet with her uncle.
The screenwriting debut for “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, “Stoker” isn’t a Dracula story, contrary to what its name implies. Rather, the film consistently finds new pockets for discomfort as the death of Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) precedes the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom Richard’s daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) and Richard’s wife (Nicole Kidman) didn’t know existed. Attractive and charming, Charlie moves in with his niece and sister-in-law, and a tangible chill hovers even during placid conversations. People start disappearing. Relationships temporarily stabilize only to fracture in grand fashion.
This is the English-language debut for South Korean director and vengeance veteran Park Chan-wook (the unpleasant cult favorite “Oldboy,” whose Spike Lee-helmed remake is expected this year). He paints style into nearly every shot. Indicating in voiceover, “To become adult is to become free,” India sits in a pose identical to a concrete statue; later, she lies in the center of a ring of shoes she’s outgrown. We learn she hates to be touched, and a school bully (Lucas Till of “X-Men: First Class”) discovers what happens when you mess with her.
Frequently the deliberate rigidity in “Stoker” distances the story from the style. Miller sometimes favors implications over clarity. The effectively cold performances also can’t hide the loose ends of a disturbing saga of inherited menace and the somewhat questionable presence of logic within madness.
Usually, though, “Stoker” and its upsetting notion of doing something bad to avoid doing something worse gets under your skin. It is art. It is horror. It is family.
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